By Phyllis Steinberg
China is a nation of contrasts. The 5,000 years of civilization are reflected in centuries old villages, temples and monuments. Then, there is the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai which is flanked by new skyscrapers and thousands of neon lights.
In the city of Beijing, take along your walking shoes as you visit historic sights such as Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square covering 110 acres. You will probably see hundreds of people waiting in a long line at the square to visit the Monument to the People's Heroes, which was built in 1958, where Chairman Mao Zedong lies in state. Chairman Mao, communist leader ruled the country from 1949 until his death in 1976 and his influence can be seen throughout China.
Just across the street is the Forbidden City, home to the emperor and his royal family. Entry to the Forbidden City was forbidden for the common people until 1911, when the last emperor, Puyi, was overthrown. The City which occupies 775,000 square feet and nearly 10,000 rooms is an architectural masterpiece that is surrounded by a moat and a 33-foot high wall designed to keep intruders out. Most of the original treasures of the Forbidden City have been removed, but you can stroll among the vast buildings and admire the architecture of the city where the Ming Emperors resided for centuries.
Save The Great Wall of China for another walking day. It is one of the world's seven great man-made wonders. Originally built as a defense against enemies from the north, the Great Wall was constructed over a period of 2,000 years, following different routes according to need. The wall stretches 3,700 miles and has 10,000 beacon towers. Climbing to the top of the wall is an adventure for only the most fit. But taking a few steps is all you need to view the majesty of the Great Wall and you can choose how far you want to climb. At the base of the Great Wall there are many stores to purchase inexpensive souvenirs and a coffee shop to rest your feet after the extensive climb on uneven steps.
A visit to China, wouldn't be complete with tasting the national dish, “Peking Duck.” Beijing was originally called Peking and later the name was changed to Beijing. There are many Peking Duck Restaurants, but the Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant in Beijing, which has been in business for the last 130 years is highly recommended. The duck is carved tableside and the surroundings are clean and beautiful.
The bustling city of Shanghai is China's most cosmopolitan city. Here, you can visit Yu Garden, a Ming Dynasty-era , A.D. 1368-1644, garden, Nanjing Road and the famed waterfront Bund, with its tall buildings and bright lights. And you can visit the Old City for numerous low cost souveniers to take home! Plan to spend a few hours at the modern Shanghai Art Museum with its four floors of treasures of Chinese civilization. The Chinese Acrobat Show in Shanghai is also a must-see for tourists to China.
While, these are surely great sights to attract the most discriminating of travelers, cruising the Yangtze River, is something that must not be missed by travelers to this immense Asian destination.
Ritz Tours offers a combined experience of visiting the interesting cities of Beijing and Shanghai with the Yangtze River Cruise, which is reasonably priced and very well organized.
Ritz Tours has a guide that stays with the group for the entire trip, including on the cruise, and has a local guide in addition at each city. This is extremely important for visitors to China because most of the population does not speak English and it is difficult to obtain directions from the locals.
The Yangtze River flows through eight provinces and has more than 700 tributary rivers. It is the longest river in China and the third longest in the world, traveling more than 3,900 miles.
Victoria Cruises, an American cruise line in China, has four cruise ships sailing up and down the Yangtze River.
The downstream itinerary is the most popular. It departs from Chongqing to Yichang. The cruise takes passengers through the Three Gorges shiplocks and offers a complimentary shore excursion on a smaller vessel through the Lesser Three Gorges which were formed about 70 million years ago. These Gorges, formed by earth movements into the sea, create spectacular scenery dotted by perpendicular cliffs and curves in the gorges.
The breathtaking Three Gorges, Qutang, Wuxia and Ziling, will probably disappear when the Three Gorges Dam Project is completed in 2008. The 28-mile Wu Gorge is the most beautiful. It is lined by many picturesque peaks and valleys. Even though the water level of the Yangtze is being slowly raised in a massive effort to subdue the annual floodwaters that devastate the river valley, the Gorges are a spectacular sight. Two million people who live along the Yangtze River will have to be relocated when the dam is completed.
The Dam Project has been taken on by the Chinese government to improve shipping, prevent flooding and provide hydroelectric power to China's interior.
The downstream cruise also includes a visit to The Three Gorges Dam Project which provides an in-depth look at this modern technological structure.
Going through the ship locks is an unforgettable, unique experience of the Yangtze River cruise. Unlike the Panama Canal, ships go through the locks on their own power. The raising of the ship as it goes through the locks is quite dramatic because the ship is just four stories high allowing for great visuals and picture taking.
The scenery of the Three Gorges and going through the locks is more than worth the price of the cruise, but Victoria Cruises also gives passengers fine dining and entertainment.
The ship offers a variety of cuisine. There was a daily breakfast and lunch buffet that included American items such as waffles, a pizza and a salad bar, in addition to the traditional Chinese cuisine.
Dinners were served with pomp and circumstance, Chinese style, with a revolving center on each table featuring a wide variety of appetizers, entrees and desserts. Chopsticks were there to eat with, but there were also knives, forks and spoons for the less adventurous.
Following dinner, there was entertainment each evening in the show lounge. Especially entertaining was the Chinese fashion show, complete with music and costumes from the Ming Dynasty to current day attire.
There were also karate demonstrations, a Peking opera and a karaoke sing-along each evening.
And for those who wanted to learn the Chinese game of Maj jong. There were sets on board and instructions on how to play.
The ship also had an exercise room with treadmills and weight equipment and a beauty salon and spa.
The newest ship in the line is the Victoria Katarina, which made its inaugural cruise in March of 2004.
This four-deck ship offers comfortable outside cabins with picture windows and private bathrooms. Every cabin also has a private balcony.
There was also a gift shop, plenty of deck space and a staff that was friendly and aiming to please. Tipping on the ship was optional. A tip box was on the main deck and guests had suggested guidelines of tipping in their staterooms.
If you are contemplating a visit to China, try to take the cruise and witness the spectacular scenery of the Three Gorges before the new Dam is completed.